U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra violated federal law when they told the Justice Department to drop a lawsuit against a hospital that forced a nurse to assist an elective abortion, 84 Republican lawmakers say.
In a letter Wednesday to the high-ranking Biden administration officials, first obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation, 21 senators and 63 representatives demand to know why Becerra and Garland acted to drop the lawsuit the Justice Department filed in December under the Trump administration.
“Your handling of this case is a profound miscarriage of justice and a rejection of your commitment to enforce federal conscience laws for Americans of all religious beliefs and creeds—and especially for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who object to abortion,” the Republican senators and congressmen, led by Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and James Lankford of Oklahoma, wrote. They added:
Your actions signal to employers all around the country that they don’t need to comply with the law because your agencies will not enforce it. They also signal that this administration would rather allow consciences to be violated at the behest of the abortion lobby rather enforce the law and protect religious liberty.
Cotton Lankford UVMMC Letter by Mary Margaret Olohan
Trump Administration Lawsuit
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights issued a notice of violation against the University of Vermont Medical Center in August 2019 for forcing a nurse to help with an abortion against her well-known objections to the procedure.
The letter from HHS noted that the hospital’s actions violated the 1973 Church amendments prohibiting HHS grant recipients from discriminating against individuals who refuse to assist with an abortion due to their religious beliefs.
“[The University of Vermont Medical Center] not only violated one nurse’s conscience rights, but it kept policies in place that explicitly required members with conscience objections to participate in procedures to ‘ensure that patient care is not negatively impacted,’” the 84 lawmakers wrote, adding that HHS’ Office for Civil Rights discovered that the hospital had scheduled approximately 10 nurses with registered conscience objections to help with approximately 20 abortions.
The University of Vermont Medical Center, the lawmakers wrote, “easily could have accommodated objections without any disturbance to the services it provided, as it had for other non-religious and non-abortion-related objections, but instead continued to perpetuate a work environment that was hostile toward people of faith both in policy and practice.”
HHS let the hospital know that it must conform its policies to the Church amendments, the lawmakers said in their letter, noting that the agency “even offered to work with [the University of Vermont Medical Center] to help bring it into compliance.”
But the hospital, which has been receiving grant funding from HHS since 1998, refused to comply with federal law “and its contractual obligations as a federal grant recipient,” the GOP lawmakers wrote.
Biden Administration Tells DOJ to Drop Lawsuit
The Department of Justice sued the University of Vermont Medical Center in December at the referral of HHS under the Trump administration, the lawmakers wrote. But under Becerra and Garland’s leadership, they said, HHS revoked its notice of violation, withdrew the referral to the Justice Department, and requested that the agency drop the lawsuit.
“The DOJ did in fact voluntarily dismiss the case on Friday, July 30, 2021, without any binding settlement or requirement that [the University of Vermont Medical Center] remedy its unlawful policies or make restitution to, or even acknowledge, the nurse whose rights it violated,” the lawmakers said.
The 84 Republicans stressed that Becerra and Garland withdrew the lawsuit knowing that there were “no additional legal remedies for victims of discrimination in this case.” The lawmakers wrote:
Instead of supporting proposed legislation like the Conscience Protection Act to allow victims of discrimination to have their day in court, by reportedly unraveling the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within [HHS’ Office for Civil Rights] and dropping this lawsuit, you have spent your time blocking any possible legal remedy for victims of discrimination and making it harder for any further discrimination claims to be filed, investigated, and remedied.
In a pluralistic society, laws that allow people to live by their conscience should not even be necessary. Nevertheless, due to the coercive actions of employers like [University of Vermont Medical Center] and the hostility toward religious and moral convictions shown by your agencies in this case, the importance of these laws is plainly demonstrated.
The lawmakers’ letter reminded Becerra that he promised earlier this year that HHS would “continue to provide protections for the civil constitutional rights of all Americans, including those that involve religion,” and follow the law as it relates to abortion, religious liberties, and conscience protections:
HHS’s actions in this case directly contradict those assurances. Moreover, they call into question your honesty before Congress and willingness to enforce the law in all other matters. We will continue to monitor the actions of both HHS and DOJ to ensure that the laws as enacted by Congress are fully enforced.
The University of Vermont Medical Center did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Caller News Foundation.
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